Monday, March 22, 2010

Spring Break Is Here! + Health Insurance Bills Pass + Immigration Reformers Rally in DC

My grades are now in, which means that Spring Break week begins. It's more of a symbolic break--and brake--than a real one, though, since I still have to finish a syllabus for a new course I'm teaching next quarter, but that's always an enjoyable task. (Well, all except the document-scanning part.) I'm hoping the weather stays beautiful here so that we can start planting by this weekend, before I head back to Chicago, where, I read and heard, it snowed. Yikes. It was 70F here on Saturday, and between the scaling of prose I did get out and about. Spring, please, hang around.


The Democratic Leadership
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi celebrates
with other Democrats after
the health care reform
bill passed through the House
of Representatives by a vote
of 219 to 212 Sunday.
(Kevin Dietsch/UPI)
Perhaps it was always so, but politics these past few years have sometimes seemed more thrilling than the most artfully created dramas. To put it another way, there's an art and some farce to--and tremendous artifice in--our political system that was greatly on display yesterday. As I read short and marked up stories and essays and cooked, and C did his thing, we periodically would stop and watch the speechifying and punditizing and all the other lead ups to the dramatic vote last night for the terribly flawed, Republite, but still necessary Senate Health Insurance Reform and Reconciliation bills which passed last night, 219-210 and 220-209 respectively, in the US House of Representatives. We should all give great credit to President Barack Obama and his administration, and to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and her caucus's leadership, for pulling off this major and longtime-coming accomplishment.

The recent path to last night's momentous events, easily the most important of President Obama's presidency and one of the landmark non-military votes of the last 35 years, involved ugly scenes and behavior of the sort that have been all to common in our history. Tea Party protesters massed outside the Capitol Building called civil rights hero Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) and a fellow Democrat, Indiana Congressman Andre Carson "nigger"; they spat on black Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver (D-MO); and hollered "faggot" at out gay Congressional leader Barney Frank (D-MA).  In addition someone hurled bricks through the windows and doors of Representative Louise Slaughter's upstate New York office, and someone shattered a window at Congresswoman Gabrielle Griffiths's (D-AZ) Tucson-area office window.  These acts mirrored some of the most hideous racist, homophobic, and violent rhetoric that emerged during the 2008 campaign, and which has reappeared in various forms in the Teabaggers' protests and gatherings over the last year; in all cases, fear, ignorance and hatred of the Other is motivating these people as much as any economic or economically ideological concerns.

In the House chamber itself, GOP supporters had to be escorted from the gallery, and some of its leaders repeatedly used extremist rhetoric to denounce a bill that in essence was produced by a right-wing think tank and heavily drafted by an insurance company lobbyist.  Things reached such a feverish, unreal pitch last night, in keeping with the GOP's testeria over doing anything to help the less fortunate using GOP-friendly approaches, that after diehard anti-abortionist Congressman Bart Stupak (D-MI, and Michael Moore's Congressperson!) who had repeatedly misstaked the facts about the Senate bill's abortion provisions and attempted to take the bill down completely, shifted his position to vote for the legislation based on an agreement with Obama, who issued an executive order setting the Hyde Amendment as the law of the land, an even more extreme Republican, Randy Neugebauer (R-TX), shattered what little decorum remained and screamed out "baby killer." This echoed GOP behavior during the President's address to the joint session of the Houses of Congress last September, when Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) yelled out "You lie!" Neugebauer apologized today, but his actions made clear how difficult any real bipartisan comity or agreement with the extremist-dominated Republican Party rump that now sits in Congress, unless the topic is warmonger and warmaking.

But back to the bill: it falls far short of many of the goals Obama outlined during the campaign. There is no affordable, government-funded public insurance option. There is no drug importation, nor can Medicare negotiate for lower prices. The bill bans rescission based on pre-existing conditions for adults, but not for several years. The bill does not halt the profit-making motives or slash waste and overhead for private insurance companies enough. It includes some well-known and some last-minute giveaways to the insurance, pharmaceutical and hospital industries. It also incentivizes (a horrible word, I know) higher-deductible plans at the cost of more ample, affordable ones. It mandates that all American adults buy often costly private insurance at penalty of an IRS fine. For some individuals and families who don't qualify for Medicaid or fall at the lower, subsidy-ready end of the spectrum, or, conversely, at the top, the costs will be a burden. As the 18% non-enrollment level in the structurally close Massachusetts health care program, introduced by Republican Mitt Romney when he governed that state, demonstrates, affordability should have been a greater consideration. And, despite the deranged outbursts by Wilson, Neugebauer and others, this bill strikes a severe blow to abortion rights, particular for working-class and poor women, and to equality for all US residents, particularly undocumented immigrants. Firedoglake lays out some six of the bill's most egregious flaws here.

President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and senior staff react in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, as the House passes the health care reform bill, March 21, 2010.  (Official White House/Pete Souza)
The bill is riddled with problems. And was worth passing, because it does improve in some key ways on the status quo even as it doesn't challenge or undermine some of the serious structural problems affecting US health care, chief among them reining in corporate interests and the for-profit model of health insurance and coverage. Linguist and critic Noam Chomsky stated in a Raw Story interview today that were he in Congress he would have "held his nose," given how awful this bill is compared to what it could and should have done, and voted for it. Deferring again to Firedoglake, here are some of the realities of what's just been passed: Fact Sheet: The Truth About the Health Care Bill. Ugh! So what good does it do? Among its immediate benefits, it bans insurance companies from dropping children with pre-existing conditions (adults must wait until 2014); it ensures that people with pre-existic conditions will be able to get insurance through a temporary high-risk pool; it offers small businesses tax credits to provide insurance for workers; it does remove lifetime cost caps; it closes the prescription drug "doughnut-hole" for seniors; it allows parents to carry their children on their plans until the age of 26; it ends recissions; insurance must pay out 80% of premiums in claims; and they have to create greater transparency in their operations.

Now that the bill is passed, where do we go? First, we should keep in mind that, once the Reconciliation sidecar bill passes the US Senate, this historic bill is still only a first step. Its flaws need to be fixed. Second, what we who care about real, progressive health care reform can do is to push our Senators to hold an up-or-down vote for a robust government insurance plan, a true public option. Not only President Obama, but several score US Senators claimed to support a public option, and the initial House bill also included a weakened but viable public insurance option. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has said he'd bring a public option bill up for a vote, but I don't trust him as far as I can throw him; demanding unrelentingly that he, Obama (who dealt away the public option on the gaming table of insurance industry concessions), and so-called progressives in the Senate and House support, pass and sign into law a public option is the main way to make this happen.  US health care costs per person are double or in some cases nearly triple those of comparable industrialized nations; cost-effective care, alongside expanded coverage, must be a goal, and a public option--or single-payer insurance--is the road to ensuring this. At the state level, pushing for changes that allow a public option or to ensure one is also a needed move. Also pushing for expansion of Medicare and Medicaid, drug reimportation, and Medicare drug negotiation also are important. And having more people speak out about the crucial importance of abortion rights and equality of funding, across class lines, and for fair and humane treatment of immigrants, including coverage for them if they become ill, neither of which is popular right now, will also be important.

Nevertheless, it marks the major achievement of Barack Obama's presidency thus far. It also is the major achievement of the post-2006 Congressional Democrats, and huge credit goes to the leadership of the first woman Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.  The president and Congress were able to push through a form of social legislation that over a dozen predecessors, including President Bill Clinton in 1994-95, and several past Republican presidents, could not, and did so with the support of a majority of his party members in both houses of Congress and without any support of the opposition party. It is a victory for the country, and the GOP's "Waterloo." Now it'll be up to President Obama and Congressmembers to sell this new legislation, to ensure that it runs smoothly, and to steadily and regularly improve it. Above all they cannot run away from it; once its decent provisions start to kick in, it will become as popular and vital as Social Security or Medicare, neither of which many opponents of this legislation are willing to give up, especially once they've started to rely on it.


Protesters waved signs from a flatbed truck on Sunday during the March for America immigration rally in Washington Luke Sharrett/The New York Times
Overshadowed by the health insurance reform votes yesterday was the massive march yesterday in Washington, DC, for immigration reform.  More than 200,000 immigration reform supporters called for action on the US's broken system, in which many millions of immigrants now resident in the country are undocumented, living in a legal limbo and thus open to exploitation by businesses and citizens who've gamed the situation to their benefit.

While the rhetoric on the right, and sometimes at the center and on the left often paints the immigrants as the source of the problem, what's less often broached, particular in the mainstream media, are the larger issues of what a functioning, enforceable immigration system for the 21st century United States would look like, and what corporate America's role in such a system would and should be.  The result over the last 10 years was a massive influx of immigrants, often lured by businesses of all sizes to work for lower wages, thus depressing the earnings of US citizens, without protections either for the immigrants or native workers, accompanied by an increasingly strident attack against those same immigrants, and minimal inforcement whatosever against businesses via the nation's standing immigration laws.

The result has exacerbated the country's already severe economic problems, both for the immigrants and for US citizens, and, after George W. Bush's failed effort at immigration reform, left immigrants as targets for even more abuse and exploitation, detention, sometimes severing families and leaving children without their parents, and deportation.  Under Obama, enformcement has taken the form of rising detentions and deportations, slightly increased enforcement against businesses, and pantomime on the border.  If it and the nation's ports and airports aren't as porous as they were 5 years ago, they are still quite open. In short, not much has changed for the better, though many things have gotten worse. I don't know whether Obama is serious about immigration reform; what I'd look for is where businesses fall on this issue. Wherever that is, we should expect that the Obama administration will follow. Given the Republicans' behavior surrounding the utterly Republican bill that Obama just pushed through, I cannot see them working with the administration much, if at all, on this issue, which some of their best known Congressional figures, entertainers and intellectuals, and their Teabagger base have demagogued the issue beyond reasonability, so it'll be up to the Democrats, who view many of the potential new Americans as their constituency, to lead. The question on this issue, as on all others, remains: Will they? Let's see.

More rallies are planned for April 10, the final day of the Congressional recess, and according to Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, immigrant groups will be releasing scorecards of every Congressmembers record on immigration issues on May 1.

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